Chapter 4.Sociability: Friendship


On Talking Horizontally

At the dawn of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud made a remarkable discovery: that there can be an immense difference between what someone will tell you when they are sitting opposite you in a chair, looking at you in the eye – and what they will tell you when they are lying flat on their back, looking up at the ceiling.

Freud’s goal from the first was for his patients to  be extremely honest with him; to divulge their true selves with as little inhibition as possible – for it was their self-ignorance and denial that, in his view, were the ultimate causes of their illnesses. A capacity to be honest was not – for Freud – merely refreshing, it might make the difference between sanity and despair.

The benefits of staring at the ceiling: Sigmund Freud’s couch, transported from Vienna to London in the year before his death in 1939.

But Freud also came to realise how much his own presence could be responsible for inhibiting his clients from reporting candidly on their dreams and fantasies. Something about seeing his face and feeling his eyes on them meant that patients were inclined unhelpfully to disguise their true selves, to hold back from the more embarrassing or sensitive material of their lives and to attempt to appear more ‘normal’ than was true – or good for them. Freud recognised just how much opposition there could be to talking in an unvarnished way about incest, cross-dressing, castration, impotence, cannibalism, anal sex or murder while sitting face to face, as one might in a Viennese cafe or a standard doctor’s surgery. Hence his decision, taken in 1890, to shift his patients onto a couch, which was ever since to become a mainstay of all psychotherapeutic consulting rooms the world over.

More than we perhaps realise, seeing another person’s face can discourage us from a confession; we edit our self presentation in the light of their reactions; we hold back from accessing the properly interesting, complicated and troubling (and therefore important) parts of ourselves. This happens in consulting rooms but it will happen just as often in that far more familiar context of the dinner party or social gathering. Here too, though we have come together ostensibly in order to be sincere and speak with honesty about our lives, we may succumb to fear of sharing what is truly going on inside us. Feeling eyes on us, we hold back from divulging our reality. We flinch at putting others off, we follow every twitch of their mouths and censor ourselves in line with what we imagine (often quite unfairly) to be their appetite for judgement and distaste. As a result, we may spend far longer than any of us want circling what happened on a recent holiday or how the house renovations are going – when there would be so much else we would need and like to share.

With Freud’s example in mind, we should pioneer our own forms of horizontal conversation. After dessert or between courses, we might suggest that we all go and lie down somewhere on the floor. It might be on blankets or on the carpet, it could happen in the kitchen or the hall. We might find it useful to switch off the lights.

It can be a strange sensation, to be stretched out in a darkened space with people – some of whom we may not yet know too well – with an open invitation to free associate about our lives.  We might all stay silent for two minutes to adjust to the situation. In those moments, we might think about the broad structure of our years: once we were babies, then toddlers. We went to school and it felt like it would go on forever. Then we started work, travelled, had relationships, made some big mistakes, were thrilled and sometimes despaired – and now it’s now. We’ll get older and eventually – not as far away as we would like – we will die. We become newly conscious of voices, our own and that of others; we can hear so many more of the nuances when we aren’t also being called to look, or constantly to ensure our own expression hasn’t developed in gormless or bored directions. 

In the dark, it matters a bit less what other people might think of us. We can be a bit more loyal to ourselves – and in the process, while examining the light fittings in the gloom, do other people the ultimate social favour: that of letting them see our vulnerability and peculiarity, which is what can appease their own sense of oddity and loneliness.

We might broach some of the most sensitive themes:

– What I’m scared of is…

– A thing that was tricky in my childhood…

– At work I have difficulties around …

– I feel lonely when…

– I’m so ashamed that…

– What I’d love more than anything…

– If only I wasn’t so scared, I would…

– If it didn’t seem so selfish, I would…

– If I couldn’t fail, I would…

By lying down in a strange way at dinner, we’re not in reality drifting towards eccentricity. We’re using an unusual manoeuvre in order to do something very sensible that we have aspired to for a long time: finally to tell other people what it is like to be us – and to hear individually strange but collectively deeply liberating truths from others about the nature of being alive.

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